Upgrade

Upgrade ★★★½

It’s the near future. Technology has progressed to a point where we now have self-driving cars, automated households, and surveillance drones everywhere. Primitive technology, such as manually driven cars, are beginning to die out, and some people, such as the protagonist Gray Trace, are resisting the inevitable cultural evolution. Unfortunately, a self-driving car accident leaves Gray paralyzed and his wife murdered, and his only option is to undergo a secret procedure in which an artificial intelligence called STEM is implanted into his body. His newfound abilities allow him to embark on a violent pursuit to avenge his wife, but he quickly learns that there’s something much more sinister going on...

When I went to the box office before seeing this movie, the attendant asked to see my ID, and that’s how I knew this was going to be hardcore. There are some R-rated movies where it’s fine for some teenagers to see by themselves, but this is definitely not one of them. The idea of this movie is that the protagonist has no real control over his limbs, and if he wants he can give total control to his implanted AI. Whenever that happens, you can be sure that you’re about to see some of the most glorious, unforgiving violence ever. Out of nowhere, this person has acquired the skills of a totally badass action hero, and it makes for some brilliant action scenes where he reacts to his own violence in real time, often in horror, and that’s the appeal of this movie.

It’s very brutal and visceral in its action, but it doesn’t seem to be revelling in it. In a very understated way, it’s showing us how ‘the robots lack emotion and judgment.’ They’re smarter than us, they’re faster than us, and they don’t hesitate or compromise. More than being a high-concept sci-fi revenge story, this is a horror movie about what seems to be the next step in the human-technology relationship. Once we make machines that can perform tasks so we don’t have to, the next logical epoch is that we allow machines to operate within us. What we see as the movie progresses is that this relationship is not as symbiotic as we’d like to think. Gray’s entire focus is on avenging his wife, but there’s a constant sense that the AI is operating on a much more insidious level, and the way things start to fall into place in the third act is terrifyingly brilliant.

In terms of a well-conceived sci-fi story, this is pretty damn good. The things I take issue with could be found in any movie. The lead actor is great at selling the fear of this character, but he’s not great at acting hysterical. There are numerous instances when he has to become flustered or frustrated, and I found him to be a little too stoic to convicingly portray that. Additionally, the inner machinations of the plot start to get a bit too complicated by the end; it feels like there’s one too many characters or one too many plot points for this to come across as a small story with greater implications. Most of this movie works as an Ex-Machina-style story of how evolution happens slowly, but there’s just a few moments where I felt its reach exceeded its implicit grasp.

Having said all that, this is a success in my book. It’s not afraid to be incredibly dour, cynical, or utterly hopeless, but it also possesses a fully-realized aesthetic and mission statement. It’s exhausting and it takes a lot out of you, but I can damn near guarantee that it will stay with you. I suspect it will grow in my estimation, but even the issues I have now don’t weigh this movie down, and I recommend that everyone see it, so long as you know what you’re in for.

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